What Iran wants from female religious authority: piety - yes, expertise in fiqh - no

More than a hundred women's seminaries have been set up by the Iranian state since the 1979 revolution. Yet the number of women candidates standing in next month's parliamentary election is the lowest for twenty years, Mirjam Künkler explores why this may be so
Mirjam Künkler
13 February 2012

Iran’s parliamentary election is scheduled for March 2012. Nearly 5000 candidates have registered in anticipation, but among them just over 200 women. This is the lowest number of women to register since 1992, and is indicative of the demise of women’s participation in the official political institutions of the country since Ahmadinejad’s ascension to the presidency in 2005. While the reformists' policy initiatives under President Khatami (1997-2005) had sought to increase women’s involvement in the political decision-making process, and to re-define women's role in public life, the current president’s approach has been aimed at re-anchoring women's role in the domestic sphere. Characteristically, one of the first changes Ahmadinejad undertook was changing the name of the President’s ‘Center for Women’s Participation’ to that of ‘Center for Women and Family Affairs.’

It is unlikely that the newly elected parliament will challenge the overall direction in family policy. With reformist parties boycotting the elections, the new parliament, like the current one, will largely consist of representatives who share the president’s approach towards gender issues.

With the demise of the reformist dominance in parliament in 2004, rights advocates who demand women’s rights with reference to international human rights standards have been largely excluded from the political scene. The only battle that can be fought for women today, it seems, is one that couches rights in Islamic jurisprudential approaches, i.e., arguments that ground women’s and human rights in Shiite traditions of Islamic law rather than secular sources. Shirin Ebadi, the human rights lawyer and former judge who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, recounts in her autobiography how after the 1979 revolution she needed to familiarize herself with concepts from fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in order to ground her rights advocacy in Islamic jurisprudence, and to be able to counter in the courtroom conservative rulings justified in fiqh.

Those best trained to derive concepts of rights from within Shiite jurisprudence are of course religious authorities themselves, who have aquired training in the religious seminaries of the country, established expertise in fiqh and distinguished themselves in the ability to render independent legal judgment. Ayatollahs Sane‘i and Bujnurdi, for instance, suggest that women can hold the same positions in public life as men, including those of a judge in court who interprets and applies Islamic law. However, this is a minority opinion. More representative of most scholars'position is that of Ayatollah Javadi-Amuli, who holds that it is inadmissible for women to serve in any public capacity that necessitates them to have contact with men they are not related to (na-mahram).

So what do female religious scholars contribute to the debate? How do they view the woman’s position in public life? And to what extent can and do they challenge gender-inegalitarian views justified with reference to fiqh?

The Islamic Republic has, like no other contemporary Muslim state, invested in institutions for women’s religious learning. In the last fifteen years alone, more than 100 women's seminaries have been set up all over Iran. Compared to the pre-revolutionary situation, the share of girls in the Islamic seminary system has risen exponentially. According to the official website of Jami‘at al-Zahra in Qom, now the largest state-run women’s seminary, 12,000 students are currently enrolled and over 16,000 female students have graduated since its inception in 1985.

However, despite the massive institutional apparatus that the Islamic Republic has set up to promote women’s training in religious seminaries, the scholarly fruits of this effort are surprisingly difficult to identify. Female, as opposed to male religious authorities, are hardly ever part of the debates surrounding women’s rights from an Islamic jurisprudential perspective. Why is this so?

My research with Roja Fazaeli into “The lives of two Iranian mujtahedahssuggests that the lack of female religious authorities engaging in the debate on women’s rights in Iran today is largely an outcome of the Islamic Republic’s policy toward religious education. The women’s seminaries hardly prepare women for Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence. The regime’s viewpoint continues to be that these are men’s domains. Thus, the curricula of the seminaries are designed to prepare women not for scholarship and legal expertise, but for preaching – permissible in Iran only in front of women’s audiences and usually on themes limited to “women’s issues,” i.e. child rearing, creating harmony in the family, etc.

Our research focuses on two 20th century female scholars of Islam who reached the status of mujtaheda, that is, both enjoyed the equivalent of an extensive education in the Shi‘i seminaries and received the permissions to engage in ejtehad (arriving at independent legal opinion) from senior colleagues. As such, they are the great exception to a relative dearth of mujtahedas in modern Iran. One is Iran’s most outstanding 20th century female religious authority, Nosrat Amin (1886-1983), who was widely published, and whom several male contemporaries held in highest regard. The other is Zohreh Sefati (1948-), incomparably narrower in her work than Nosrat Amin, but one of the most visible mujtahedas in the post-revolutionary period whose writings have informed legislative debates on the marriage age.

The two scholars represent like few other contemporaries the status of female religious authority in 20th century Iran, divided by the important cesura of the 1979 revolution. Both women’s work was strongly influenced by the socio-political environment in and against which they defined themselves. Nosrat Amin experienced Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1906 in her early twenties, Zohreh Sefati the 1979 Revolution in her early thirties. While Amin's formative period as an Islamic scholar occurred during a time when madrasas were slowly replaced by secular public schools and religious courts by the apparatus of a modern state judiciary, Sefati experienced the reversal of some of these reforms when the 1979 Revolution sought to Islamicise the entire legal system and expand the social and political status of Islamic seminaries.

A comparison of the two Iranian mujtahedas’ lives and works shows the extent to which social and political circumstances have shaped the opportunities for women to acquire religious authority. The theoretical framework adopted by Masooda Bano and Hilary Kalmbach in Women, Leadership and Mosques: Changes in Islamic Authority – between female agency, male invitation and state initiative – helps to explain the career paths these female scholars chose.

Both women owe their vocation predominantly to their own agency. They sought out distinguished teachers with whom to study, published according to their own insight on specific realms of Islamic knowledge, and later opened, or were instrumental in founding, schools and seminaries for women to allow these students access to a hawzeh education. The religious schools in which they taught, in Isfahan and Qom respectively, allowed women to complete the introductory muqqadimat cycle, the first of three cycles of learning in the hawzeh education, and both scholars offered private lessons for those wishing to study in the advanced sutuh and the dars-e kharej cycles. Male invitation facilitated Amin’s and Sefati’s studies in that both of their families permitted and supported the course the two female scholars had chosen and funded their education. The openings of the religious schools also benefited from the support of male clergy, and both mujtahedas emphasize that male colleagues helped them along at critical junctures on their path.

Meanwhile, state intervention, the third explanatory framework, hardly accounts for the furthering of these women’s distinction. The effects of the pre-revolutionary Pahlavi regime and the post-revolutionary Islamic Republic, although diametrically opposed in most policy realms, are surprisingly similar in their effect on female religious authority. Nosrat Amin opened a maktab, Maktab-e Fatemeh, and an Islamic high school for girls at a time when the Shah sought to shift religious education out of the hawzeh into the Islamic studies programmes of the state-run universities, where the curricula would be subject to state oversight. The opening of the maktab and high school were hence a direct challenge to the state educational policies at the time. A decade later, still prior to the 1979 revolution, Zohreh Sefati and her colleagues were instrumental in establishing a girl’s maktab in Qom, Maktab-e Tawhid, with objectives not unlike those of Nosrat Amin. After the revolution, the Islamic Republic transformed Maktab-e Tawhid along with other women’s maktabs in Qom into a full-fledged women’s hawzeh called Jami‘at al-Zahra, which henceforth became the primary theological seminary for women not only in Iran, but in the Shi‘i world at large. Despite this unique status, Jami‘at al-Zahra has not produced many mujtahedas since its inception in 1985. In the early 1990s, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei ordered the overall simplification of the curriculum with the consequence that Jami‘at al-Zahra trains women primarily in tabligh (Islamic propagation), and less in understanding and developing critical scholarship in theology and jurisprudence. In response to these developments, Zohreh Sefati, who had taught the dars-e kharej level at Jami‘at al-Zahra, left the school in the 2000s. Similar observations can be made for women’s seminaries outside of Qom.

Thus, by not facilitating and supporting the necessary training opportunities for women to emerge as mujtahedas, the current political regime in Iran - like its predecessor - has done little to promote female religious authority. Accordingly, although more than 30,000 women have started a hawzeh education over the past 30 years, Iran today counts only a handful of mujtahedas.

Apart from lacking opportunities for higher levels of study, there are also few incentives for women to strive towards achieving religious authority in contemporary Iran. With the revolution, the standards used to evaluate religious authority have shifted and today political personalities who previously might only have been considered a hojjatoleslam, surround themselves with titles of “ayatollah” or even “grand ayatollah”. A scholar’s authority once emanated from his theological and Islamic legal competence (as recognized by peers and illustrated in publications received by the ‘ulama), the number and quality of ejazehs (permissions to engage in ejtehad) collected from other mujtaheds, as well as his clerical networks and institutional locations. Today, a scholar’s authority is much more difficult to ascertain. Both recognition and reputation remain important constituents of religious authority, but the fact that clerical titles give access to political office and state funds has tainted recognition criteria. Formal religious titles today open doors to political patronage and state-funded positions that offer a secure salary. Most of these positions are de facto off limits for women, who even if trained as a mujtaheda have no chance of being appointed a Friday prayer leader, a judge, a member of any of the political clerical councils, or to attain the level of marja‘-ye taqlid, where they could collect khoms (religious taxes) and re-invest it in hawzeh, student stipends or social services, which in turn reproduce one’s authority.

Compared to the demands of contemporary women’s rights activists in Iran, the viewpoints on gender equality of both Nosrat Amin and Zohreh Sefati are very conservative. Yet when contrasting between the two, revealing nuances emerge. While both scholars affirm women’s rights to education, the right to enter marriage only by consent, and the sharing of responsibilities between wife and husband, Nosrat Amin emphasizes the proper place of women at home. Her views on gender are defined by the axiom of domesticity: women hold nearly full responsibility for the domestic sphere, while men do so for all public matters. Amin’s writings are defined by binaries and dichotomies (inside versus outside the home, religiosity versus irreligiosity, a morally corrupt West versus a morally upright Islamic world, etc) with few possibilities for shades of grey. Zohreh Sefati, by contrast, is hardly concerned with the vices of materialism and moral corruption, or the vanity of women (which in Amin’s eyes is women’s greatest predicament). Sefati instead speaks of the lacking “will and interest” of women to advance in Islamic scholarship. Mirroring the conviction of her fellow citizens involved in women’s rights advocacy (with whom she otherwise has little to share), Sefati highlights that it is women themselves who are first and foremost responsible for their destiny. To improve their situation they should not wait, in Bano and Kalmbach’s terminology, for male invitation or state intervention. If anything, it is their own agency that will open new doors. Despite their differing viewpoints on gender questions, Amin’s and Sefati’s lives underscore the same insight: even if domesticity characterized Amin’s earlier writings about women, she hardly lived by that standard towards the end of her life. She published widely, and overwhelmingly on issues not specific to women and gender questions. She opened religious schools for female students, and did so in defiance of the Zeitgeist: against a clerical environment that did not accommodate women, and a political environment that sought to eliminate religious learning outside the state altogether. She became a public figure and a role model that motivated an emerging generation to follow in her footsteps. Religious authority and domesticity can only go together so far. The extent to which female religious authority can profess domesticity is limited, because religious authority has an inherently social component. Amin’s and Sefati’s lives are the best illustrations of this tension. Where they act as religious authorities, the image of female domesticity retreats and female public agency takes its place.

This is the second in a series of articles stemming from Women, Leadership, and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority , edited by Masooda Bano and Hilary Kalmbach, ( Brill 2011)

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